Branford Marsalis: Listening with Sonic Ears Page 2

If you look like you're disinterested, people become disinterested. What we do is not an act; we're not jumping around onstage because we want people to think that we're having a good time. We are reacting to one another. And we are having a good time. We're playing and talking shit while we're playing, and it's all happening at lightning speed. It's what I always wanted in a band, where egos are completely secondary.

Micallef: You led The Tonight Show band in L.A. for three years, then you moved to North Carolina. Why not back to New York?

Marsalis: The New York scene had changed. There wasn't anybody who I wanted to consistently go to the city to hear play anymore. Those guys were all dead. So what am I paying all that money for? I was traveling a lot. I wasn't able to consistently go to the Met. I wasn't able to consistently go hear Wynton's band at Lincoln Center, or the New York Philharmonic. When I did have time off, I wouldn't go anywhere. We were paying high property taxes. I wanted to go to New Orleans, but my wife said, "No, we're not going there." So we went to North Carolina.

Micallef: How does living outside of an urban area affect the music?

Marsalis: I grew up in New York. But the style of the music was moving away from playing tunes to harmonic exploration. It's funny—in schools, musicians identify with the John Coltrane period from 1957 to 1959, and Trane bailed on that in 1960. You've got guys expanding on a system that was abandoned by the guy who invented it. It's a strange thing, but I get it. That's an easier way of learning how to play.


Micallef: Most vinyl jazz reissues are from that classic period as well. It's music you can tap your toe to.

Marsalis: The modern stuff guys are playing, you cannot tap your toe to it. Their focus is harmony, harmony, harmony! The melodies are kind of stuck in harmony prison. So the melodies can't live, because you have to write melodies first. That wasn't worth the amount of money I was paying to go hear that stuff—go hear how not to play. That's what made it easy for me to blast out of New York in 2002. I don't need to live in New York to listen to music. It's not jazz at all, because it's not really rooted in jazz.

Micallef: What's it rooted in?

Marsalis: Improvisation—a concept of improvisation that is not even improvisatory. In studying improvisation, you have scales and patterns that correspond to structure. You learn all the possibilities. Sometimes you see these guys talking about all the various mathematical permutations. But the blues is the sound. There's a sound to the blues, and you can't learn the sound from a chalkboard, and you have a bunch of musicians who choose not to listen to it. That's the flaw in the thinking today. They choose not to listen to music from the swing era, right? They choose not to listen to the music that Coltrane listened to as a kid. Because it doesn't line up with what they perceive to be their strengths. So what they're playing has nothing to do with the sound of jazz.

Wynton said this great thing, when talking about innovation. He said, "The only two innovations that jazz brought to the 20th century were the consistent use of the flatted third and the flatted seventh in a melodic context, and the swing beat. Jazz did not invent improvisation; societies have improvised for thousands of years." When you have improvisation that is so worked out and so calculated, how is it improvisation?

I remember doing interviews where I mentioned checking out [tenor saxophonists] Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. And musicians would say I should be finding my sound. I said, "I am finding my sound. That's what I'm doing."

There are only 12 notes. So no matter what you play, somebody else has already played it. So the only thing that's really infinite and unique is sound. So by learning Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, I'm learning sound and how to negotiate sound. I'm not studying shit harmonically. I'm not turning it into a mathematical construct. I'm learning how [they] played with space, how [they] reacted to the band, how [they] played things they know will get people off their seats and shaking their asses. When you learn from all these guys, that becomes a part of your sound, and it will always still sound like you.

Micallef: How do you relate that to younger musicians?

Marsalis: There's this myth . . . like this kid who asked me once, when I was talking about listening, he says, "What happens when I learn how to play like Coltrane and all I can do is sound like Coltrane?" "Son, do you actually think that's possible? You don't have to worry about that." Think about all of the people who are playing Coltrane's licks right now and failing to sound like him. Legions. But they don't really listen to Coltrane's sound, they just study his data. This is the worst possible excuse that I've ever heard. You think you're going to sound like Coltrane? Trust me, you're not, nor am I, nor is anyone. You can sound like you've listened to people or you can sound like you haven't. And the majority of musicians now sound like they haven't listened to anybody. And they think that's an attribute. Well, okay. Long as it ain't me.

Micallef: Speaking of sound, what's your choice of hi-fi at home?

Marsalis: Soon enough, I'm going to break out my Linn Sondek LP12 and start listening to vinyl again. My youngest daughter is 14, and she was particularly destructive as a kid, right? So I had to move all of my stereo shit out of her way. Now I have a Sonos system. The quality is not as good, but I can still learn from it. I'm not listening with my audio ears—I'm listening with my sonic ears, because I'm more focused on how music sounds emotionally. I listened to music for reproduction of sound quality for so long, I'm never going to forget how to do that.

Before I started having kids, I was going to buy the B&W 801s. When I was a single man, [bassist] Peter Washington and me talked about audio all the time. Then I bought a high-end CD player, and my son put Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in it. I wanted to fucking kill him, but he's five. I'm into this company, Exposure [Electronics]. I had an Exposure amp and preamp. When I slow the hell down, I have to find a listening place, and then I'll invest again—because it's worth it now.


volvic's picture

I wonder if it is the same LP-12 I saw when he provided some magazine a tour of his NYC apt in the early 90's. Reading his comments on how the younger guys don't have a connection to the past, I am reminded of a statement I heard from Steward Copeland several years ago (can be found on YouTube), where he said that 90% of jazz played today has nothing of merit or anything to say. I wonder if Branford would agree with that statement. Well done Ken Micallef, wish this was 30 pages instead of just 2, great read.

Glotz's picture

And when I finsihed reading your post and looked up to see Volvic... I smiled. Positivity, insight, thoughtfulness.

The interview as well! Like this audio hobby, there needs to be more mentorship in America's greatest music.

i've seen Branford and Ellis play, but not Winton... yet. I need to. (and see his latest movie!)

volvic's picture

My wife and I are subscribers to JALC - we go see Wynton regularly during the season. Last year he did a celebration of Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert. It was fantastic.

foxhall's picture

Wow, this interview didn't mess around with fluff. Really interesting about how he shortened the song times.

I saw Branford first with Sting then with Wynton (they opened with Black Codes) and then I saw him in his trio tour which I believe was documented on Bloomington. I really want to see him perform with a symphony so I hope he continues that for a while.

I love the new album but it's a touch brick-walled in digital format.